Savvy c-store retailers are tempting the palates of today’s consumers and growing profits with bold and spicy ethnic food options.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
When you promote yourself as “Adventure’s First Stop,” you had better be able to back that up with some spicy experiences. That’s what Maverik Convenience Stores does with its proprietary Bonfire-branded fresh food offerings.
The North Salt Lake, Utah-based company, which operates 275 stores in eight Western states, has been spicing things up for its adventure-seeking customers for a long time. Even the roller grill and sandwich condiment bar offers an array of 18 items, including jalapeños, green and red salsas, pico de gallo, three heat levels of mustard, chipotle mayonnaise (which the company reengineered to jack up the spice level) and other tasty toppings.
“Our customers are always looking for something bolder, more robust and more exciting and we’re always looking for new ways to give it to them,” said Kyle Lore, Maverik’s corporate chef. “You might imagine that the bolder flavors would appeal mostly to younger customers, but our demographic is pretty broad.”
Burritos are big sellers at Maverik and the daily menu includes five: the bacon or sausage, egg and cheese; the popular M.O.A.B. (Mother of All Burritos) with bacon, egg, sausage, ham and cheese; sweet pork and a version boasting Buffalo bleu sauce with chicken.
In some of the stores, breakfast versions are held over through lunch. At the top of the list of best-selling offerings are the M.O.A.B. and sweet sausage. In fact, the two burritos are Maverik’s No. 1 and No. 2-selling food products in terms of dollar sales. During a recent week, the stores sold an average of 9,600 burritos per day, companywide, Lore said.
This September, Maverik introduced a sixth burrito, made with steak. Another, Sriracha Chicken, is scheduled to debut later this year.
Also Latin-inspired at Maverik is the Chicken Tomatillo Quesadilla. This year, the company will also launch its first breakfast quesadilla, the Chorcheezo, made with egg; an all-natural chorizo patty; pepper cheese; a bend of cheddar, provolone and mozzarella cheeses; and chipotle sauce.
Both the burritos and quesadillas are assembled in the stores. Ingredients get stacked on trays and are flashed in the oven. They are then rolled into tortillas, which are put back to flash in the oven again. The burritos and quesadillas are then wrapped in foil and put in the warmer for grab and go.
Two hours is the maximum holding time for these products. Lore emphasized that they are never reheated or microwaved.
“Reheated product just can’t compete with fresh,” Lore said.
BOLD AND BOLDER
And Maverik is venturing beyond Latin American-style specialties to bring even more bold flavors to its customers.
Like many convenience stores, Maverik offers wrap sandwiches. But, in keeping with the brand’s adventurous image, Lore and his team wanted to kick theirs up a notch so they created an Asian Kung Fu Wrap, made with spicy chicken, coleslaw, sesame dressing and Thai peanut sauce on a 12-inch wrap. Maverik’s first foray into the Asian flavor profile, the Kung Fu Wrap has been faring extremely well during company-wide test marketing, Lore said.
Also new on the menu is a new category of sandwiches which the company calls “Hotties.” They are made on a soft, sweet potato pita that tastes like a Hawaiian roll, Lore said, filled with flavorful ingredients such as pastrami with giardiniera, a spicy relish. A Cuban-style Hottie includes ham and pulled sweet pork, chipotle mayonnaise and pepper jack cheese.
The Pastrami Hottie was rolled out during the first quarter of this year, and the Cuban at the beginning of the summer. During a flash sale on St. Patrick’s Day, the stores sold 10,000 Pastrami Hotties, Lore said.
TACOS DRIVE TRAFFIC
Tacos are the big deal for breakfast and lunch at CST Corner Store convenience stores, according to Richard Poye, director of food service for CST Brands. The extensive grab-and-go program is available in at least 100 of the chain’s more than 1,000 locations in eight states.
For breakfast Corner Store offers four varieties—bacon and egg, bean and cheese, egg and potato and sausage and egg, all for $1.79 each.
Lunch tacos include fajita chicken, fajita beef, smoked brisket and carne guisada, a Tex-Mex stew. They are priced at $2.29 each.
The stores also regularly run LTOs. One recent favorite was a Hatch chile, pulled-pork and cheddar cheese taco.
A single taco is a satisfying snack and “two make a great meal,” Poye said. He described the program as “super popular.”
“Our customers love our tacos,” Poye said.
Every taco is pressed and cooked in the store. The meat is also cooked in store. Once they are assembled they are held in the warmer for grab-and-go convenience. Until recently, Corner Store also carried a tequila-lime sausage. That has now been replaced by a Hatch chile sausage.
While it’s no surprise that Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisines have made major inroads into American food culture over the years, respondents to a recent National Restaurant Association (NRA) survey said that they are now at least familiar with foods and flavor profiles from Ethiopia, Brazil, Argentina and Korea.
Two-thirds of the consumers in the survey said they are eating a wider variety of ethnic cuisines now than they were just five years ago. Nearly one-third said they had tried a new ethnic cuisine over the past year. Some 80% of respondents said they eat at least one ethnic meal per month. At the summer’s Fancy Foods Show, convenient ethnic foods were among the identified trends.
DIALING UP FLAVOR
For convenience stores, producing foods in tune with this trend can be as easy as “dialing up the flavors” of existing products—even hot dogs—with condiments, said Kara Nielsen, culinary director and trendologist for Sterling-Rice Group, a brand marketing agency based in Boulder, Colo. “There can be more than 20 different ways to give hot dogs an Asian spin,” Nielsen said. “For example, you could top it with kimchi instead of sauerkraut to make it Korean or with wasabi and a sprinkle of sesame seeds to make it Japanese.”
Mayonnaise can be spiced up to reflect a particular ethnic flavor profile and used as a sandwich spread or the base of a dipping sauce for chicken tenders. She cited chipotle as an example of an easy add-in to generate a South-of-the-Border flavor.
Just looking at hot sauces alone, there are several “must-haves,” including the traditional Tabasco and the much-buzzed-about sriracha. An article recently published in Fast Company magazine noted hot sauce is now a billion dollar industry, having increased its sales 150% since 2000. That’s more than all of the other condiments—ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and barbecue sauce—combined.
“Street food from around the world fits the profile of convenience store food because it is usually hand-held and convenient to carry around,” Nielsen said.
Sometimes it’s the little things that communicate inclusion of other cultures. If, for example, you’re going to put out cut up fresh fruit, think about mango slices sprinkled with chile powder, a very popular street snack in parts of Asia. Or, she said, add lychee to a fruit cup or jicama to give a crudité offering a little Latin accent.